$1.5 trillion infrastructure bill would give big boost to east-west rail

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal speaks Friday at Springfield’s Union Station while Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno watches. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2020 4:12:45 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Standing on a platform Friday morning at Union Station, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal touted an expansive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill unveiled by House Democrats this week that includes $19 billion in federal grant funding that he said will benefit east-west rail.

Calling the proposal “the most ambitious infrastructure plan” since former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, Neal said the legislation would pave the way for federal funding across a variety of sectors, including improvements to roads and bridges, municipal broadband internet, affordable housing, green energy and rail.

 “This is a really substantive effort,” Neal of the legislation.

Called the Moving Forward Act, the bill would deliver $300 billion to repairing crumbling roads and bridges; invest more than $100 billion in transit for zero-emission buses; give over $100 billion to to schools and child care; put $100 billion into affordable housing infrastructure; allocate $100 billion toward broadband internet access; and assign $70 billion to clean energy infrastructure, among other initiatives, according to a fact sheet about the legislation.

Neal, who serves as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters over the roar of a waiting train that he believes the legislation is likely to pass the House of Representatives in the coming weeks, and “then we begin the negotiation.” Neal said he has been in “constant contact” with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and has discussed infrastructure with him.

“We have not done a big infrastructure bill in a long time … but Republicans are likely to support an infrastructure bill — a lot of them,” Neal said. “Mnuchin has said to me time and again, ‘We want to do this.’ I’m confident I can call him in a week or 10 days and say, ‘We have a plan.’”

In a phone interview, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said the bill will “translate in a million different ways” to western Massachusetts, noting that spending on infrastructure will lead to job creation and overall economic growth. The congressman also noted the bill’s focus on internet access, rail expansion and clean energy, saying, “It moves us closer and closer to the goals of the Green New Deal.”

“These investments will create a climate for growth,” McGovern said. “Given the pandemic that we’re in right now, this is part of what we need to do for economic recovery.”

How the bill breaks down

The $19 billion federal grant program for rail included in the proposal, called the Passenger Rail Improvement, Modernization and Expansion (PRIME) Grants, would be disbursed over five years for repair, improvement and expansion projects, according to documents provided by Neal’s office. A total of 32 high-speed rail projects would be eligible for the funds, with priority given to projects that incorporate regional planning, that have the support of multiple states and/or would provide environmental benefits. Amtrak would also have its funding tripled to $29 billion, Neal’s office said.

Neal pointed to the success of north-south rail and the investment made by the state and federal government to Union Station as examples of the benefits of rail funding. Cost estimates for six MassDOT proposals for east-west rail vary from $2 billion for infrastructure upgrades from Springfield to Boston to around $25 billion for electrified high-speed rail from Pittsfield to Boston on a new railroad line.

“Boston to Worcester to Union Station, then Springfield’s Union Station down to Pittsfield, makes the best economic and social sense,” Neal said.

Ben Heckscher, co-founder of the rail expansion advocacy group Trains In The Valley, said the state Department of Transportation had recently come forward with “cautiously optimistic steps” that could move east-west rail from a study to an actual project. But the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively dried up state funds to build infrastructure like east-west rail, Heckscher said, so dedicated federal money in the form of this grant program could help fill those gaps.

“To do anything, you got to have political support and you have to have money,” Heckscher said. “This is really important news from the perspective of seeing an east-west rail project actually really start to move forward.”

While Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle called the prospect of more federal funding for east-west rail “fantastic,” she said that she was excited that the legislation put a lot of focus on local government. The bill could provide the city with funds to address a broad range of issues, such as water infrastructure, transportation, bridges, and supporting and keeping safe, small child care businesses.

The bill provides for public and private sector infrastructure funding options, LaChapelle said, as well as for green infrastructure, “which I desperately need because my municipal utility bills are going through the roof,” she said. LaChapelle added that she has already pursued state and private sector grants for some of these issues, but that she’d be able to stack more federal funds on top and potentially lessen the tax burden on residents and renters alike. The bill would allocate $40 billion to new wastewater infrastructure around the country. 

“I can take the data I’ve put together for private sector and state grants, and now I can slip it right over into some federal money to get to those bigger, more complicated issues — rather than taking the lowest-hanging fruit,” LaChapelle said.

The Democrats’ sweeping infrastructure bill also includes a tax credit for five years for operation and maintenance costs of municipal broadband networks. Easthampton voters in November granted the city the option to establish a municipal light plant, which could include municipal broadband; LaChapelle said the city has completed a feasibility study on the subject and that elected leaders are ready to put together a proposal.

“I feel like with this bill, they’re listening to what we’ve been asking for,” she said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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